Lower Merion's new public garden already threatened by middle school plan

On May 10, 2018, Molly Morrison, president of Natural Lands, stands in an area of the grounds that the Lower Merion School District was trying to acquire, through eminent domain, for playing fields for a new middle school. But now the school district is actually trying to get the entire property, including the brand new garden.

This Mother’s Day was supposed to be a moment of joy for Lower Merion conservationists as they throw open the gates of a 42-acre verdant jewel within the crowded township, Stoneleigh garden at the Villanova estate once belonging to the chemical-industry billionaire John Haas.

But even before the first visitor strolls past the historic plantings and the iconic family of wooden rabbits that watch over County Line Road at the edge of the garden, supporters are worried their new gem will be taken away.

The Lower Merion School District informed the garden’s owners last month that it is considering a proposal to seize the garden and perhaps build a new middle school there.

“It wouldn’t be our first choice,” said Kenneth Roos, the solicitor for the Main Line school district, which had already raised hackles this year by floating the idea of seizing 6.9 acres of Stoneleigh through eminent domain to serve as athletic fields if the middle school were built on a nearby property.

But Lower Merion officials have now told Natural Lands, the nonprofit that owns Stoneleigh, they are coming back next week to inspect the entire 42 acres. “It is my understanding you could put a whole school there,” said Roos, who called the Villanova location “more suitable” than three other sites that present major obstacles, such as unwilling sellers.

The conservationists who spent nearly two years preparing Stoneleigh to become one of the Philadelphia region’s top garden attractions, adding 10,000 plants and 350 trees, are girding to fight its seizure by the school district.

“We believe starting Sunday and thereafter, when the public comes to know and love Stoneleigh, the profound threat that condemnation represents will be very clear,” said Molly K. Morrison, president of Natural Lands, which received the property as a gift from the estate of Haas and his wife, Chara, in 2016.

On Thursday, Morrison sent an urgent email to supporters saying Natural Lands would fight any threat to the new public garden, which will offer visitors  an opportunity to walk through parkland, hold picnics, see the state’s biggest ironwood tree, and tour the Tudor mansion that was built in the 1930s by John Haas’s father, Otto, founder of the former Rohm & Haas chemical empire.

That the school district is considering taking even part of Stoneleigh reflects the increasing urgency of Lower Merion officials’ attempt to find a solution to overcrowding in its middle and elementary schools while facing a lack of large, available open land in the affluent suburb.

The district expects to top out at 9,300 students during the next decade after enrollment had plunged as low as 5,000 during the so-called baby bust of the 1980s. Administrators  previously said they hoped to have an expansion plan — involving either a school or adding capacity to several existing ones – in place by the end of the current school year.

If Lower Merion does decide to build a third middle school for grades 5-8, the only willing seller is the Islamic Foundation, which owns a 22-acre tract on Montgomery Avenue in Villanova. But that site is too steep for playing fields, which is why the district also began eyeing the 6.9-acre slice of Stoneleigh.

The district had also declared its interest in land belonging to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary or Friends’ Central School, both in Wynnewood – but neither has expressed any interest in selling, and Roos said the district can’t exercise eminent domain to seize those locations.

Last fall, community opposition scuttled another plan floated by the district to address its enrollment growth by seizing the 28-acre Ashbridge Park, an arboretum, playground, and slice of walkable open space in the heart of Rosemont.

 Roos said officials are making every effort to avoid what they call “neighborhood stabilization,” school code for adding classrooms at existing schools, an idea that has met strong opposition from some parents.

“We don’t have any other options right now,” said Roos, who acknowledged that every expansion plan that Lower Merion is considering will meet an “extraordinary level” of community opposition.

School Superintendent Robert Copeland told a meeting of the Lower Merion and Narberth Civic Associations this Monday that the district would “absolutely” take the 6.9-acre tract of Stoneleigh by eminent domain if that proves necessary.

That infuriates local conservationists like Terri Simon of Wynnewood.

“People are not just going to take this sitting on their hands,” said Simon, an attorney  who attended Monday’s meeting and said she was angry at the implication that the district’s needs might take precedence over open space. She said she has been to Stoneleigh, which she called “an utterly magical property,” and that the gift from the Haas family was meant to combat overdevelopment in Lower Merion.

 “It’s almost never heard of that a family would donate something so important to the community to be free and open to enjoy forever,” agreed Maurine McGeehan, executive director of the Lower Merion Conservancy. She said even the district’s initial idea of seizing a piece of the garden for ball fields would ruin the character of the site.

Morrison agreed, saying those 6.9 acres are an “essential backdrop” for the best views from the large Vista Meadow at the center of the property.

But Roos noted that the tract was singled out because the conservation easement had carved it out as a “potential development area” if the property caretakers needed to raise money at some future date. “We’re trying to do this in the least intrusive way possible,” he insisted.

The garden will open as planned at 10 a.m. Sunday, free of charge to visitors, who are expected to come from throughout the region. A few days later, school district officials will arrive for their inspection.